“Yvette and Chaka are two different girls,” Chaka Khan said in 2015, referring to her birth name, Yvette Marie Stevens. “Chaka is an entertainer. I don’t like her very much. She’s stressed a lot because of all the, ‘Oh you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that,’ and it takes me away from my comfort zone, which is being Yvette now.” Yet it’s for the best Chaka Khan songs that Yvette is known – and hers is a legacy that empowered women and defined funk music throughout the 70s and 80s.
Becoming Chaka Khan: “Everyone was looking for an identity and so I picked the Yoruba culture and religion”
Yvette became Chaka at the age of 17, and her full title is Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi. “During the pan-Africanism days in the US, everyone was looking for an identity and so I picked the Yoruba culture and religion,” she has said. “We used to do classes, and one year there was an African priest who would come over and he gave me my name.” Khan was also a member, while a teenager, of the Black Panther Party, selling newspapers and running a free-breakfast-for-children programme as part of her activism.
She realised she could sing around the age of 12 or 13, when she performed an Aretha Franklin song at a talent show and “people threw money on the stage”. After leaving high school, she began to sing with local groups in her native Chicago. In 1972, Khan joined a new funk group who called themselves Ask Rufus; they would soon drop the “Ask” and, with Khan, go on to find enormous success with a series of funk and disco anthems. For a time, Khan had a parallel solo career alongside her work with Rufus, but by the early 80s her solo career was supernova, and she left the group to concentrate on that.
Finding inner peace: “I don’t have to take any crap”
One of the most influential female musicians of all time, Khan has created album after album of memorable tracks, both solo and with Rufus, making it a tricky task to pick the best Chaka Khan songs. Though there have been demons and dark days (Khan is very open about her past issues with addiction), she has increasingly found inner peace. “Age isn’t meaningful to me,” she said in 2017, at the age of 64. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my own skin, and more accepting of myself. The older I get the more I realise I don’t have to take any crap.”
Listen to the best of Chaka Khan here, and check out our best Chaka Khan songs, below.
10: I’m A Woman (I’m A Backbone) (with Rufus) (from ‘Rufusized’, 1974)
I’m A Woman (I’m A Backbone) is a funky feminist flame from the third Rufus album, Rufusized, released in 1974. It was at this point that Khan, with her commanding stage presence and raw voice (which somehow combined Iggy Pop and Aretha Franklin) really started to become the focal point of the group. Appearing on magazine covers and assuming the role of main spokesperson for the band, the seeds of her huge stardom were sown. Yet Khan has never allowed ambition to overtake her. “I control my life and I have never let success run away with me – I’ve taken it and ran,” she said in 2015. “And the only thing that could threaten my stability is me – I’m my only threat and my own worst enemy.”